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James Brady, 73; Reagan spokesman became champion of gun control

NEW YORK — James S. Brady, the White House press secretary who was wounded in an assassination attempt on President Reagan and then became a symbol of the fight for gun control, championing tighter regulations from his wheelchair, died Monday in Alexandria, Va. He was 73.

Jennifer Fuson, a spokeswoman for Mr. Brady’s organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

On the rainy afternoon of March 30, 1981, Mr. Brady was struck in a hail of bullets fired by John W. Hinckley Jr., a mentally troubled college dropout who had hoped that shooting the president would impress the actress Jodie Foster, on whom he had a fixation. Hinckley raised his handgun as Reagan stepped out of a hotel in Washington after giving a speech.


Reagan, a couple of paces from his limousine, was hit, as were a Secret Service agent, a District of Columbia police officer, and — the most seriously wounded — Mr. Brady, who was shot in the head. The bullet damaged the right side of his brain, paralyzing his left arm, weakening his left leg, damaging his short-term memory, and impairing his speech. Just getting out of a car became a study in determination.

“What I was, I am not now,” Mr. Brady said in 1994. “What I was, I will never be again.”

What Mr. Brady became was an advocate of tough restrictions on the sale of handguns like the $29 pawnshop special that Hinckley had bought with false identification. “I wouldn’t be here in this damn wheelchair if we had common-sense legislation,” Mr. Brady said in 2011.

With his wife, Sarah, he campaigned for a bill that Congress passed 12 years after the shooting. The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act ushered in background checks and waiting periods for many gun buyers.


The Bradys also pressed for the restoration of a federal ban on assault weapons, which expired in 2004.

They issued statements calling for renewed restrictions after such episodes as the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. After 32 people were killed in shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, the Bradys supported a bill that closed a loophole that had allowed the gunman to buy weapons even though he had earlier been committed to a mental hospital. President George W. Bush signed the measure into law in January 2008.

Mr. Brady returned to the White House occasionally, speaking briefly with President Obama in 2011 on the 30th anniversary of the assassination attempt. Mr. Brady wore a blue bracelet with the name of Representative Gabrielle Gifford, who had been shot in the head a few weeks earlier in an attack in Tucson that killed six people.

The Bradys later sent recommendations to a White House task force on preventing gun violence, calling for universal background checks. They also recommended safety programs for the nation’s gun owners; Americans own almost 300 million firearms.

In the 1990s, when he was pressing for the Brady bill, Mr. Brady dismissed as “lamebrain nonsense” the National Rifle Association’s contention that a waiting period would inconvenience law-abiding people who had reason to buy a gun. The idea behind the waiting period was to give the seller time to check on whether the prospective purchaser had a criminal record, or had lied in supplying information on the required documents.


Mr. Brady said five business days was not too much to make purchasers wait. Every day, he once testified, “I need help getting out of bed, help taking a shower, and help getting dressed, and — damn it — I need help going to the bathroom. I guess I’m paying for their ‘convenience.’ ”

As the Bradys worked the phones, shoring up supporters, opposition to the bill softened in Congress amid a surge in gun-related violence across the nation and public opinion polls showing crime and violence to be top priorities for Americans. On Nov. 30, 1993, President Clinton signed the Brady bill into law, with Brady at his side in a wheelchair. The Brady Center estimated that restrictions in the bill have blocked 2 million gun purchases.

Advocating gun restrictions was not the role Mr. Brady had envisioned for himself when he became the White House press secretary in 1981.

He had a reputation as a Washington insider. He was also known for his wisecracks, though they sometimes boomeranged on him. As Reagan’s director of public affairs and research during the 1980 presidential race, he was banned from the campaign plane for a week. The offense: He and another Reagan aide had shouted “killer trees, killer trees!” while flying over a forest fire. The remark was a not terribly subtle reminder that Reagan had once identified trees as a major source of air pollution.

James Scott Brady was born in Centralia, Ill., the only child of Dorothy and Harold Brady, a railroad yardmaster.

Before graduating from the University of Illinois in 1962, he served as the president of the campus Young Republicans. He entered the University of Illinois law school that fall, and in 1963, he was chosen for a summer internship at the Justice Department in Washington.

Eventually, he quit law school, and earned a doctorate in public administration at Southern Illinois University. He returned to Washington, where he worked for Senators Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois and William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware before he signed on with Reagan.


After the shooting, he also served as the chairman of the National Organization on Disability, a nonprofit group that advocates better conditions for handicapped people, and as a spokesman for the National Head Injuries Foundation.

Besides his wife, Mr. Brady leaves a son, James Jr., and a daughter, Melissa Jane, from his first marriage, which ended in divorce. Mr. Brady lived in Alexandria.